Brief: Indonesia Arrests Uzbek Militants in Latest Central Asian Jihadist Sting
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 8
On April 5, Densus 88, the Indonesian elite counter-terror unit, announced that four Uzbek nationals were arrested in Indonesia after traveling to that country from Turkey, passing through Abu Dhabi and Malaysia (kompas.com, April 5). They had all left Syria ahead of a media push by their group, Katibat Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ) in February. Founded in 2015—along with another Uzbek jihadist group in Syria, Imam Bukhari Battalion (IBB)—KTJ has proven more enduring than the now-defunct IBB, perhaps because of KTJ’s broader international networks (see Terrorism Monitor, July 1, 2016).
In March, just before the latest arrests, KTJ released a series of photographs featuring its emir and sharia official, Ustaz Abdulaziz and Ustaz Ahluddin Navqati, respectively, inspecting fortified positions in Idlib (Twitter/@G88Daniele, March 24). Prior to that release, KTJ had also released images of its fighters in fortified positions, as well as providing emergency relief to victims of the earthquake in Idlib (Twitter/@G88Daniele, January 27). KTJ has accordingly become a major force multiplier for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and enabled the formerly al-Qaeda-affiliated (and now nominally independent) jihadist group to maintain a hold on power in Idlib, preventing the Syrian government from reasserting its authority there (voanews.com, October 13, 2022).
One of the KTJ members arrested in Indonesia was responsible for providing financial support and false documents for their compatriots fighting in Idlib. The other three had been trained in KTJ camps and assisted the group with its production of high-quality propaganda (kompas.com, April 5). Lest one assume that the men were not dangerous, they attempted to escape detainment by stealing a knife and cutting a hole through their cell’s ceiling and killed an immigration officer on April 11 (dailyexpress.com.my, April 11). The KTJ members apparently took advantage of the officer’s preparation of his pre-dawn Ramadan meal. Supposedly, the group became especially motivated to escape after receiving a visit from Uzbekistani consular officials, as this made them fear the possibility of an especially harsh sentence once they were repatriated.
The prior arrest of other KTJ members in South Korea with similar profiles demonstrates that the group may lack a sanctuary in Turkey—and is seeking out other countries where it can set up logistics and financial hubs—but is being tracked down by counter-terrorism agencies successfully (yna.co.kr, February 16). KTJ may also be facing troubles recruiting militants, as conflict in places like Ukraine means a greater demand for fighters globally. Russia’s Wagner Group and the Russian army itself have reportedly both been paying Uzbek migrants in Russia—to include prisoners and former fighters in Afghanistan—to fight on Russia’s behalf in their war against Ukraine (Ozodlikradiosi, March 3, 2022; gazeta.uz, September 13, 2022). Therefore, Uzbeks who might have previously joined KTJ out of an interest in travel, adventure, and money rather than for ideological reasons may now be fighting in Ukraine.
If other Uzbeks seek to travel to Indonesia for similar reasons as the four recent KTJ arrestees, their efforts are likely to fail. Indonesia will certainly be on alert for Central Asian militants after these arrests and the similar ones in South Korea. There are relatively few Uzbeks in Indonesia, so recent arrivals are likely to stand out. Furthermore, Indonesia already succeeded in tracking down and arresting several cells of the Uyghur-led Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which had attempted to seek refuge and train with Indonesian jihadists (benarnews.org, October 13, 2020). What remains to be seen is whether the closing international operational space for KTJ in Indonesia, South Korea, and Turkey will end up affecting KTJ operations in Idlib itself.